Feds on alert for pot use


Staff Writer

Wolf Creek Ski Area, which operates on US Forest Service land under a special use permit, is now open full time for the ski season.

Wolf Creek’s occupation of federal lands means that federal law takes precedent over state law as it does on all other National Forest System Lands and in federal buildings. This means that, despite passage of Amendment 64 in Colorado, possession and use of marijuana remains illegal at the ski area.

The Forest Service manages the land occupied by Wolf Creek and the federal government owns it. The 50 Forest Service law enforcement officers employed in the Rocky Mountain Region (Region 2) of the Forest Service are National Forest employees who respond to a chain of command separate from local Forest Service supervisors. Organizing supervision this way, said Mike Blakeman, public affairs specialist for the Rio Grande National Forest, ensures that local rangers don’t affect what officers do and don’t write tickets for. Despite this separation, Forest Service law enforcement officers communicate and work frequently with district rangers and staff.

National forest law enforcement officers will enforce federal law on all Forest Service lands, regardless of state law, season or activity. Law enforcement officers regularly patrol all National Forest lands in their jurisdiction, including ski areas.

Blakeman explained that two law enforcement officers patrol the 1.8 million acre Rio Grande National Forest, where Wolf Creek is located. Even though this only amounts to one officer per 900,000 acres, Blakeman explained that the public and other Forest Service employees, including forest protection officers, serve as additional eyes, ears and noses in the search for illegal activity. Forest protection officers patrol National Forest lands and can issue some tickets, but cannot issue citations for any kind of illegal drug use, including marijuana.

Blakeman went on to explain that marijuana use at ski areas is a safety concern both on roads and slopes.

“If someone is intoxicated, it’s an accident waiting to happen, one way or another,” Blakeman said. Law enforcement will be paying close attention to public behavior this winter.

Davey Pitcher, president and CEO of Wolf Creek, explained that law enforcement officers regularly ski on the mountain, patrol the parking lot and occasionally write tickets for marijuana-related offenses. Pitcher explained that the ski area is not taking any specific action to target marijuana users nor is staff engaged in any public outreach to inform patrons of legal jurisdictions and potential consequences for possessing and using marijuana.

“As far as we’re concerned it’s a federal issue,” said Pitcher. “We’re simply letting law enforcement do their job on our permit.”

Pitcher also noted that he has seen no changes in public behavior at the ski area and has not observed or heard of anyone smoking in the parking lot or on the permit this year.

The main goal of Wolf Creek staff is to keep the public safe and to help people enjoy the sport of skiing. According to Pitcher, Wolf Creek Ski Patrol is not out to specifically catch or report marijuana users.

“Ski patrol is responsible for watching how the public behaves as skiers,” said Pitcher. “If someone is out of control or skiing irresponsibly, the patrol will make contact.” After making contact, if the ski patrol deems an individual to be a safety concern or to be acting in a manner that is disrespectful to the sport of skiing, that individual will not be allowed back on a ski lift. These ski area rules apply to all skiers that pose a safety threat, regardless of marijuana use.

“The ski patrol will enforce the Colorado Ski Safety Act and the Skiers Responsibility Code,” explained Pitcher. “Our primary concern is skier safety in all capacities.”

According to Chris Strebig, Region 2 Media Officer with the Forest Service, possession, use and cultivation of marijuana remains illegal on Forest Service lands. Therefore, marijuana use or possession at the 22 ski areas that operate on National Forest lands in Colorado is illegal and anyone who violates this federal law can receive a citation.

“Nothing has changed for us; marijuana use and possession is still prohibited,” said Strebig.

Federal law takes precedent over state law on federal lands, but even if this were not the case, Amendment 64 does not allow for consumption of marijuana in public or in a manner that endangers others. Use of marijuana at a ski area is public, and could potentially endanger others depending on the situation.

The Forest Service does not generally conduct undercover investigations at ski areas, but uniformed officers patrol National Forest Service System lands including ski areas that operate under special use permits. Considering passage of medical and recreational marijuana laws in Colorado, the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region Winter Sports Program Manager has contacted special use permit coordinators for ski areas to reiterate to permittees that possession and use of marijuana remains illegal on federal lands.

Marijuana related citations carry a minimum of a $250 fee and possible court summons — a maximum fine of $5,000 and/or six months in jail may result from violations.

More information about violations and enforcement can be found at http://cfr.regstoday.com/36cfr.aspx, which contains the title 36 code of federal regulations and on the USDA Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations website at http://www.fs.fed.us/lei/.